Unlocking human potential Proactive practices for individual elasticity

22 March 2017

The growing wellness industry attests to people’s need to destress and slow down. Finding the balance between roots and shoots—between inward reflection and outward exploration—can be the key here, say Maggie Wooll and Duleesha Kulasooriya.

They don't come to it until they reach some sort of crisis in their lives, whether it's suddenly you find yourself crying every Sunday night before you go back to work, or you either have an illness or someone you care about has an illness, and suddenly that makes you think about what really matters.

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TANYA OTT: The world is changing so fast. To keep up, we can try tricks to cram more in—or we can try to slow down, absorb, and reflect. But what if it’s not either/or? What if you can have your serenity and your life hacks, too?

I’m Tanya Ott, and my guests on today’s show are looking at new ways to make that happen—they call it “roots and shoots.” But first, let’s talk about the roots of those roots.

MELISSA SCOTT: Hey guys, Melissa here. Today I’m going to show you a really simple core-strengthening asset, core sun salutation. This is a great way to start your practice, to get warmed up, to get energized, to feel . . .

TANYA OTT: The body and mind are big business these days, as we try to stem the stress of an always-connected, moving-at-the-speed-of-light life. A recent study found that the number of people practicing yoga in the US has increased by more than 50 percent since 2012.1 We spend more than $16 billion annually on classes, workout clothes, yoga mats, and all the other gear. 2 Meditation-related spending nearly reached the $1 billion mark in 2015.3 And workplace wellness? That’s a $40 billion business in the US.4

We have an overwhelming need to destress. So it’s pretty ironic that when I tried to dial up two people who’ve spent a lot of time researching mindfulness and how it can help in the workplace, we had so many technical difficulties, it was maddening! There was an echo on the phone line, then feedback. Ack, technology!

We all took a day or two to breathe deeply, then tried to connect again—from different phones. I ask them both to introduce themselves.

MAGGIE WOOLL: Hi, I'm Maggie Wooll, and I lead eminence development for the Center for the Edge. I came out of Consulting and Strategy and Operations, working also with tech companies. At some point, I decided I no longer wanted to do that, so I left Deloitte and spent a few years writing novels and writing fiction. And then I gradually decided I wanted to work my way back up the food chain and start engaging my brain a little bit more again, and started freelancing, doing perspective for companies like Deloitte. And then I came back to the Center for the Edge when the opportunity came up.

TANYA OTT: Great. And Duleesha?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: I’m Duleesha Kulasooriya. I’m the strategist for the Center for the Edge. Prior to the center, which has been about 10 years now, I was a consultant with Deloitte. I'd actually come to a point, like Maggie, where consulting was less interesting. I wanted to look for something else. The center [had] just been set up, and what I agreed to as a six-month assignment ended up being the last 10 years.

MAGGIE WOOLL: At the center, we try and stay as colocated as possible. So we spend a few days a week in the office together where we can write on the walls and talk through things.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We actually sit right next to each other—er, stand right next to each other . . .

TANYA OTT: I thought for a minute there you said sleep right next to each other, and I thought, well, this interview is going in a completely different direction that I did not foresee!

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: I was going to say we’re a “work couple,” but . . .

TANYA OTT: Oh my gosh, that's too funny! What was it about this topic that really interested you guys? What's going on in the world right now that would have you going, oh, we should really look at this?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We track trends. That's one of the things we do as a center, and we recognize there's a lot more stress than ever before. And we saw this mindfulness popping up all over the place as a reaction to the stress. So that was one of the markers to say, huh, this is interesting. We should be paying attention to this.

MAGGIE WOOLL: At the same time, what we do at the center is think about how institutions are going to change, which leads to thinking about how work in the future is going to change and how the workplace of the future will change. So then we thought about, what does that actually mean for individuals? It was both kind of what we feeling ourselves right now, as well as in thinking about how it played in with the center's larger topics.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: When you think about each of us, I’m very much “outside in.” I’ll go out exploring and maybe not spend as much time reflecting upon it. Then I usually go to Maggie and say, “I just saw this thing. What do you think it means?”

MAGGIE WOOLL: We realized that we were both coming from very different ends of the spectrum [to] the “roots and shoots.” That same value that we find in working together led the way to start thinking about, “Well, what's the value of these two separate ideas that are each really beneficial to individuals, but how much more powerful are they when they're combined?” So, for instance, if Duleesha’s out very much in the shoots, exploring and making connections, if you don't have time and the mechanism to come back and reflect, you don't learn as much from the insights. You don't make those interesting connections between the things you're observing and experiencing.

TANYA OTT: So let's talk about the roots and shoots that you're making reference to, before we get too deep into it. When you say “roots,” what do you mean?

MAGGIE WOOLL: When we talk about roots, we're really talking about this movement towards mindfulness, meditation. It's the things that really are about slowing down, taking time to build your foundation, and some of that’s your personal relationships. Some of that can be your health, the quiet spaces for free time to think.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Yeah, roots are being grounded, and shoots are exploring. It's looking outwards and learning new things. But each one of them in isolation doesn't lead to much.

TANYA OTT: Give me an example of how you guys envision combining roots and shoots.

MAGGIE WOOLL: A lot of times, people don't come to some of these roots practices—even basic rest, mindfulness, reflecting on their values—until they reach some sort of crisis in their lives. Whether it's suddenly finding yourself crying every Sunday night before you go back to work, or you have an illness, or someone you care about has an illness, and suddenly it makes you think about what really matters. People tend not to come to these roots practices until they have a crisis.

Rest is very useful, but how much more effective [is it] if you can be building in the rest and reflection into your life as you go along, so you don't have to reach a crisis point. You can continue to check the exploration and the learning that you're doing in the shoots against what your core values are. That way, it's not 10 years down the road you realize you've become very far from your core values, but you're actually on a regular basis checking in, seeing how what you're doing and the actions you're taking are actually aligned with the goals you have and the values you have.

What we envision is really an ongoing cycle, not a straight-line path. It really is about learning and continuing to test your ideas back against what you've been thinking about, and then kick it back into the world, take some action, gather some new information, gather some new data, and then again bring it back into reflection.

TANYA OTT: Should I be embarrassed that on my calendar I actually have scheduled “Think”? Like, there's an hour that says “Think.” It's kind of sad, right? But on the other hand, if I don't schedule that hour to just think about my industry or think about my organization, I often don't do it because I run, run, run . . .

MAGGIE WOOLL: That's all the living in the Shoots, right? It's like you are constantly acting, and never getting a chance to figure out what it all meant, and bring it back and realize that you've actually learned some really important things, or that there is a new direction for you to take that would be really productive. But you miss that connection if you never have that time to think.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: What you've done is an example of a new practice that you’ve developed in order to step away from the constant busyness.

MAGGIE WOOLL: What you highlight there is really important, which is one of our messages: These practices don't have to be big practices or complicated practices, and it's not some elaborate plan. It's starting to just take small actions. Using your calendar is a great way to do it to start just building that space.

TANYA OTT: What are some of the other small actions like that that you think are particularly helpful to keep us grounded, but also to keep us thinking about how we can progress?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Quite a few that we've come across we've tried ourselves. One of the other ideas we came across was this idea of digital detox: stepping away from our devices for some period of time. The first thing the founder of Digital Detox told me was, the easiest thing you can do is get a dumb alarm clock, something that is not connected. You know those bright red lights? The reason to do that is we've become so accustomed to using our phone as an alarm clock—I do it myself. The problem is, as soon as you pick up that phone as an alarm clock, you go into automatic mode to check your email, to check your Facebook, to check all those things. And that whole world immediately takes over everything. You have no time for reflection or no time to even think about what you might have processed in your sleep.

TANYA OTT: Duleesha, you self-identified as the shoots guy in this equation. Have you done a full digital detox?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We tried. We as a family tried to do Sundays.

TANYA OTT: How's that working for you?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Well, we also realized that our digital devices are also nannies for our kids, and we don't get a break.

TANYA OTT: How old are your kids?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We’ve got seven, three, and three.

TANYA OTT: Oh wow.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: So we couldn't keep it up ourselves. But I think we'll keep coming back to the practice. It’s a lot like saying, OK, if we can’t do a day, then we do a half a day. If we can’t do a half a day, do we do it over dinnertime? When can we actually practice digital detox?

TANYA OTT: I have three daughters. They’re now 16, 18, and 22. We did the—and it's pretty modest―you cannot bring your phone to the dinner table. It's not allowed.

MAGGIE WOOLL: It seems so basic, you know. Another reason people have had to name these things, like digital detox, is because the technology becomes so pervasive that you need this external authority to help you come up with a reason for why you're going to limit the use of the technology at the table or whatever it is.

TANYA OTT: When my oldest daughter was in middle school, we discovered she was having a problem with texting too much, so we tried to take the phone away for a night. Quite honestly, you would have thought that she was a huge junkie and going through major withdrawal. There was a lot of screaming and shaking involved in that process. Maybe those of us who were all grown up don't react in exactly that same way, but it can be a little bit disconcerting because you feel like you're going to miss something.

MAGGIE WOOLL: I think we've all had that experience where we lose our phone or it's dead for a while, and you really do feel disconnected, because we've lost track of how we used to connect with people or how we used to keep track of our time and our days.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Try to take away a phone from an executive for an afternoon, and see how they react. Inwardly they will be exactly like your daughter. Externally they may hold themselves back a bit.

TANYA OTT: Yeah. Have you seen that happen before?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Another experiment we tried was to create a locker with chargers where you can charge your phone outside the room. So you're going into a digital detox room where you don't take your devices with you. And it just wouldn't fly―couldn't get people to agree.

TANYA OTT: They were like, “No, not going to do that”?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: They’re too attached to being constantly connected.

TANYA OTT: So digital detox is one life hack that you have. What's another one that you think is really useful?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: There’s a shoots one that I’ve been doing for a while now, which has given me a lot of positive feedback. Anytime I go for a conference or a meeting or to do some talks or anything like that, if I'm traveling to a new place, as much as I can, I'll try to add an unscheduled day or a half a day or a few hours. That way, whatever comes up during that time that I'm there, I get to extend it and explore something new. One of the big things we are finding is that people are so busy―our calendars are completely full―that when you come across something that's really exciting, you actually don't have any time to dive deeper. And if you have to wait for two weeks to get that free time to dive deep into it, you've already lost that momentum.

MAGGIE WOOLL: The problem when we go traveling for meetings, or conferences even, is that people tend to book in all of these conference calls and everything with the office back home in between their sessions. That really stops [us from] having any ability to connect with people more casually in between your formal meetings.

One thing I found―and this was from a few years ago, actually, from John Hagel and John Seely Brown's book The Power of Pull―is this idea of when you go to a conference, either choosing conferences that you know nothing about, or at least choosing the sessions that you know nothing about as a means of actually really expanding your learning. Just like when you go shopping, you pick out the shirt that looks very much like the one you're wearing, [instead of going] to conferences where we should be learning, we go to the ones where we actually feel like we're at least halfway expert in some of the subjects.

TANYA OTT: Isn't some of that about just wanting that comfort of feeling of like an expert because we're afraid to fail? We're afraid to perhaps admit that we don't know something about something, or perhaps struggle to understand something new.

MAGGIE WOOLL: Right. So it's comforting, but it's missing such an opportunity to really find out about something that maybe is connected but that you would never know about, and to really be in that uncomfortable position of maybe not knowing the terminology and not knowing who the players are.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: The big premise for the roots and shoots, all of what you practice here, is that there's a mind-set of unlearning and learning. You want to have that curious mind so that you are trying to figure out which things are no longer relevant and which things are new. When you have that mind-set, then it absolutely makes sense to explore something new that you don't know about. But if you don't have that mind-set, if it is about being the expert, then you shut down that part of curiosity.

TANYA OTT: You mention unlearning, Duleesha. What do you mean by that, and why should we be open to the idea?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: We've been taught to be a certain way, to think a certain way, to behave a certain way for decades now, particularly if you've been working for a while, and gone through a schooling system where they told you what to do and how to do it. Then you get trained in work, in what to do and what not to do. But the world has changed dramatically, and humans have not caught up with that. Just look at the gap between how a Boomer would think versus how a Millennial would think. How do you get the Boomer to step back, unlearn some of those old practices, and think like a Millennial? That’s not easy at all.

MAGGIE WOOLL: And this is where some of our other work at the Center comes in: learning incrementally and incrementally building on your experience base. [There used to be] some sort of continuum from the business principles you knew before and what's going to work in the future. But now you see some of the new business models, with new technology that is so very different, that it becomes more important for people to actually let go of what they know to be true sometimes, because that can really hold you back if you're just trying to build incrementally on that.

For unlearning, that’s where the shoots come in. As long as you're sitting there and you're in your quiet space thinking, there's nothing that's ever going to spur you to unlearn some of what you know. Actually getting out and experiencing something so different, that kind of shocks you or puts you in someone else's shoes or gives you a different context, that's the way you really start the unlearning.

TANYA OTT: So this is a lot about individuals, but institutions also play an important role in providing the environment where people can practice this big shift in the way that they do things. What are the two most important things that institutions can do to give people the room to root and shoot?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: In the first place, it starts from the recognition as to why this is important. If you talk to any CEO or any exec, [one of the top issues is] the war [for] talent―finding the right talent that's relevant for their future. So you want to create spaces where people are practicing roots and shoots; that's the best talent because they are the ones who are going to be most adept at dealing with changing times. Having said that, then they could do very tactical things like giving you subsidies or funds to use towards roots practices like meditation or retreat or things like that, just like they do for health and wellness and exercise. You could have a sabbatical program. Every year, you get a week off. Every few years, get a few weeks or months off―some sabbatical program that forces you to go out and explore something new.

TANYA OTT: That sounds like it could be somewhat challenging to benchmark that. How are you going to gauge if giving somebody a subsidy to do meditation or other mindfulness activities is actually resulting in something in the workplace?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: You can have the same argument for giving people subsidies to stay fit. You could say, one metric would be are they not sick as often? Are they not taking as many sick days? They could track like that. So in this case, the output would be on the performance of the individual. If you're giving them space to ground themselves and to learn the roots and shoots both, you should see that they're performing better than their peers who are not taking advantage of such opportunities.

TANYA OTT: What are the biggest pitfalls that institutions can fall into when they're trying to think about how to incorporate this into the way they work with employees?

MAGGIE WOOLL: This is actually can be a very personal set of practices for each individual, and they'll figure out the ones that are right for them. There is a pitfall that institutions, in trying to be supportive, might try to make it too programmatic and efficient. I think that is a continuous cycle that individuals will follow through their whole lives. Their need for different practices will change over time. It does have to be something that individuals direct for themselves, even if that means there is somewhat less metric-driven accountability for it.

TANYA OTT: What's the next step in your thinking or your research around this?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Personally, we want to both continue to try some of these practices for ourselves, and see what works and what doesn't, and learn from it. We want to gather more and more case studies, either individuals or institutions. Individuals who are trying it, what do they learn from it? As well as institutions who have tried to do this, how they are tracking it, and what they're learning from that as well. So we want to get more and case studies and continue the dialogue and continue learning, because I think what we put together was nothing more than an opening volley.

TANYA OTT: You mention trying things out yourself. Is there something that either of you tried that you thought was going to work for you, and then you were like, no, that doesn't work, and here's why.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Well, the digital detox is one!

TANYA OTT: OK, clearly the digital detox was a little challenging. Anything else?

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: Right now, I'm forcing myself to try another one. Genetically and otherwise, I'm now pre-diabetic, and I should take time off to figure this out. But somehow that doesn't seem to be an easy task to do. So when I come back later this week, I'm going to try to take a week off to focus on meeting a doctor, starting an exercise regime, rethinking diet, because it's hard to do all of that when you're already running 80 hours a week. But it wasn't easy to come to that conclusion even after you got the blood work to say that you are pre-diabetic. It wasn't easy to step away. So let's see if I can actually do it, and then let's see if I can stick to those things that are important while being very busy.

TANYA OTT: In addition to having that hour in my schedule that says “Think,” I also started blocking off my entire lunch period so no one could schedule meetings for me at that time. So I can go out and walk. And I had to do that to make myself do it. I know it's important, but it actually had to appear on my calendar to make me do it.

MAGGIE WOOLL: I think that’s what’s really important, that this is actually hard, and it's a process. In the paper, we talk about rest being the first place that you start. And it really is, for most of us, because even though it doesn't sound like the most exciting part of it, just finding that break and breaking from the busyness cycle is the most important thing most of us can do to even begin down the path for any of the other practices.

DULEESHA KULASOORIYA: It's actually hard to take on these practices. These are not easy, and all of the basic habit-building things come into play. What does help today is technology: The same technology that is disrupting and making things harder in life in general is also supporting us and making things easier. So when you have technology like a Fitbit that gives you the number of steps, and you know there are so many exercise meters today, that feedback loop is very useful. There's another one called Spire, which tracks your breathing and tell you if you're breathing erratically without you knowing about it. So technology, while it is the disrupter, is also the enabler for a lot of these new practices that we need to develop.

MAGGIE WOOLL: This is interesting. There's a whole sector growing up around this called transformative technology that has both a lot of interest from the tech companies [and] a lot of money going into it. It is getting at how to you use this new ability we have to actually understand ourselves and our habits better, as well just to use the technology to help us and enable us rather than continue to hurt our lives and our ability to control our life.

TANYA OTT: Right. I was just looking at my Fitbit. I have about another 8,000 steps to go. The nice thing about it is that it also has the semi-guided meditation breathing exercises that it can do. Then, of course, on my phone I have the (I think it's called) 10 Percent Happier meditation app. It is kind of funny that we rely on these pieces of technology sometimes to get us at least started down the path of training ourselves to do them.

MAGGIE WOOLL: And you know why? Partly it’s because we're really comfortable with our devices now. But it also just removes all of those barriers, because otherwise you’re sitting there thinking, I should take up meditation. But then how do you start? You have to look up someone who’s going to teach you meditation. So it's just making it really easy, trying to reduce the barriers to getting started.

TANYA OTT: Well, I will just share real briefly when we tried to teach our two youngest children how to meditate [when] they were in upper elementary school and early middle school. They sat there for quite a while, and the youngest―who has a huge monkey mind―was like, “Why is the Buddha green?” And I’m like, “Buddha is not green.” And she says, “But the Buddha [statue] is green. Why isn’t he blue?” And then the other one sat there, and about seven or eight minutes in, she goes, “When do I lift off the ground?”

I’m like, “Oh honey. . . .”

MAGGIE WOOLL: That would be motivating!

TANYA OTT: I know, right? Meditate, not levitate.


TANYA OTT: Well, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been wonderful talking with both of you.

MAGGIE WOOLL: Thank you, Tanya.


TANYA OTT: Maggie Wooll and Duleesha Kulasooriya’s paper is titled Unlocking human potential: Proactive practices for individual elasticity. You can find it, and a whole archive of shows, at dupress.deloitte.com.

We love to hear from you! Whip out that smartphone and follow us on Twitter @du_press, or send us an old-school email at podcasts@dupress.com. Tell us what you think about Maggie and Duleesha’s suggestions. And maybe make a suggestion yourself! What do you want us to cover? What do you want to know more about? I’d love to hear from you. I’m Tanya Ott, for the Press Room. Have a peaceful and productive day!

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